Rugby Union: Dallaglio tackles detractors head on

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The Independent Online
A FICKLE thing, fame. Three months ago to the day, Lawrence Dallaglio was so obviously the flavour of the moment that Rick Stein might have been tempted to crash-tackle the England captain into the nearest pot and cook him whole.

Victory over a highly motivated band of Springbok record hunters not only appeared to justify Clive Woodward's long-term faith in Dallaglio's leadership skills, but also earned the Wasps flanker an undisputed place in the nation's sporting pantheon.

One match later, he has become a human dartboard; not only do his detractors accuse him of being unable to take decisions in the heat of battle - a serious problem for a captain - but they claim he does not tackle, which is a monstrous allegation to throw at any self- respecting loose forward.

Dallaglio has no urgent need to fight his corner, for the campaign against him is every bit as fatuous as the recent witch-hunt mounted against Martin Johnson, but he has never been an enthusiastic practitioner of the backward step and he decided yesterday to fight the critical fire with a little heat of his own.

"I passed my maths pretty well at school and I know how many tackles I make," he said in Killiney as England finalised their preparations for tomorrow's Five Nations rumble with the up-and-at-'em Irish at Lansdowne Road. "I'm quite happy to take criticism on board - none of us are above criticism, after all - and I accept that we didn't meet the standards we set ourselves against Scotland a couple of weekends ago. However, I wouldn't want to single out any one member of the team as being responsible for that performance, including myself.

"As an international player, you know when you've played well and when you've performed badly. I wasn't at all satisfied with my own efforts against the Scots but the same could be said for a good many of those senior players who took the field a fortnight ago. There are a lot of very good, experienced hands in the England side and I would not expect any of them to be guilty of two bad ones in succession. Again, I include myself in that. I think you'll see a different England at Lansdowne Road, one that attempts to play an adventurous game but also does the simple things well and gets the basics absolutely right."

Woodward, the England coach, remarked earlier this week on the pressure being applied to the starting line-up by the bench replacements and foremost among those ambitious wannabes is Martin Corry, whose prodigious performances for Leicester have established him as the form No 8 in the country. Nevertheless, Woodward never seriously considered making a back row change, despite the pro-Corry bandwagon. "Lawrence, Richard Hill and Neil Back make up my favourite back row," he reiterated after Wednesday's training session at Blackrock.

You can see why. Back's unique brand of support play puts England's attacking game on a different plane, Hill's overtly physical versatility makes him a central plank of whatever plan the coach chooses to put into operation and Dallaglio possesses the priceless ability to accelerate the pace of a match virtually single-handedly. Also, the latter is the only credible national captain in the country. Dig out the video of last November's shapeless England-Italy World Cup qualifier, a game Dallaglio missed, if you require proof.

The Irish, by contrast, were in happy go lucky mood yesterday, their management striking an intelligent balance between bullish optimism and open respect for their English foe. "England are one of the best sides in the world," pronounced Warren Gatland, the emerald Kiwi from the rugby- loving farmlands of Waikato. "They will be a little disappointed with their own lack of consistency, I guess, but you can't ignore the fact that in the space of 16 months they've drawn with the All Blacks, lost by a point to the Wallabies in a game they should have won and beaten the world champions.

"Still, we're confident of giving a good account of ourselves. One of the questions I just asked the players in training was: `Which of you doesn't feel he's a better player than his opposite number?' I can tell you that I didn't get many answers."